Materials for Worship on the Second Sunday of Advent

Nerys writes: Now that I’m getting a little older, I’m attending more events to mark the retirement of colleagues and friends. Many of these are quite similar to each other, but there is one that stands out in my memory because it made a deep impression on me at the time. Although this person had given a lifetime’s service to the Church, nothing was said in the meeting about his contribution, his many achievements or the quality of his ministry. I found this very puzzling to begin with but understood the reason for it when he himself stood up to speak, starting by explaining that all he had ever wanted to be was a signpost to Jesus Christ and proceeding to make worship the focus of the rest of the evening.

My friend had been, and still is, someone who points others beyond himself, guiding them to Christ. I was reminded of his example this week when I was reading the lectionary passages, Isaiah 11.1-10 and Matthew 3.1-12, reflecting especially on the calling of John the Baptist and on our calling this Advent to help bring God’s hope and God’s peace into the world.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John bursts on to the scene with no introduction. We aren’t told of his family or of his relationship to Jesus. We know nothing of his life up to the moment when he appears in the wilderness of Judea and we hear his voice proclaiming repentance. We do learn, however, that he is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s message. He is the herald summoning his people to prepare the way of the Lord. He is the new Elijah, dressed in the wild prophet’s rough clothing, living like him on God’s provision. He is the fearless, fearsome preacher calling out the hypocrisy and complacency of the religious leaders of Jerusalem. He is the baptiser, offering a new start and new hope to ordinary people. He is the last of all the prophets, challenging his people to turn away from evil and return to God so that the Messiah might come.

It is no wonder that John becomes a celebrity and crowds flock to the Jordan to listen to him and to be baptised. His rich identity and powerful acts draw people’s attention to him and yet his words draw attention only to the one whose coming he announces. He makes it clear to everyone that his ministry is not about himself but about someone far more powerful, one he isn’t worthy to carry his sandals. He is just a signpost, directing people to God’s anointed one.

As his fame and his following grew, it must have been so tempting for John to turn the focus on himself. The natural, human response would have been to seek recognition for his extraordinary gifts, to ensure that his name would go down in history. How easy it could have been for John to change the course of his ministry, especially when the one he had proclaimed is nothing like he imagined, when he turns out to be someone whose approach is quite different from his own. As the tensions between them grew, how easy it would have been for John to yield to the expectations of his followers and split from Jesus. And yet, even from his prison cell, John points his disciples to Jesus declaring, ‘ He must increase but I must decrease’. John is happy to be forgotten, provided that his message is heard.

I wonder what it was that enabled John to continue his life-long undertaking , even in the face of puzzlement, disappointment and danger. We are not told of his early life but we can imagine the depth of his relationship with God who had called him to this task from the moment he leapt in his mother’s womb in the presence of the unborn Christ. Luke tells us that he came among the people only after he had undergone years of lonely preparation in the wilderness. We can imagine the difficult decisions that he grappled with in that thin place. Among them, the decision not to become a priest like his father and forefathers but to turn his back on his family and go the way God was leading him. The decision not to make Jerusalem his base, but to leave the centre of power in order to live on the margins, in the harsh environment of the wilderness. The decision not to serve the temple elite but to offer purity to anyone who came to him in the Jordan, even tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes. The decision to speak truth to power despite the knowledge that it would inevitably result in his punishment and death.

We can imagine how John’s reliance on God had grown during the years of solitude in the wilderness. John wasn’t given all the answers. He received no reward. He didn’t see in his short, harsh life what we can all see now, but his deep trust in God enabled him to initiate his ministry and stick faithfully to his calling throughout his life. And it was this trust which gave him peace of mind even in the bleakest of circumstances. ‘No one is greater than John’, said Jesus, ‘and yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he’.

In this season of Advent, we are called to help bring God’s hope and God’s peace into our broken world. Like John, we won’t be given all the answers. We can expect no reward. Our job is simply to steadfastly point to Christ through our words, our actions and who we are. It is no easy task. In order to draw the attention of others to Jesus, our attention needs to be removed from our preoccupation with ourselves so that it can be wholly focussed on him. It requires self-discipline based on a deep trust that we are loved by God and the knowledge that we have God’s spirit of love among us and within us to inspire and equip us, to speak for us and to guide us.

I invite you to take time today and in the days ahead as we prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace, to prepare your heart through prayer to serve as one who points others to Him.